Shot in the arm for health-related products


From nowhere being close to self-reliant, the Mission Atmanirbhar Bharat sprints off in India even in the thick of the raging pandemic to make it a leading player in the export of PPEs and masks to the world, explains Jyothi Menon with facts and figures.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s vision of Atmanirbhar Bharat has lent a new vigour to the country’s manufacturing sector that, like most other sectors, had received major setbacks during the Covid-19 pandemic. Manufacturing is a significant economic catalyst in India and PM Modi’s call for a self-reliant India has given the sector the necessary impetus to make India self-reliant especially in the country’s fight against Covid-19.

In the months following the spread of the novel coronavirus India not only increased the manufacturing of health-related products that were necessary to combat Covid-19 infection particularly Personal Protective Equipment (PPEs) and face masks, it soon became a global exporter of the same.

In March 2020, when the deadly pandemic hit India, the country had zero PPE production facilities. Soon after, within a span of two months, there were over 600 companies that had been certified to manufacture PPEs. In a span of sixty days, India became the second-largest producer of PPEs in the world.

Mission to look outwards

Speaking at the inaugural address of a webinar series, Union Minister for Railways, Commerce and Industry Piyush Goyal said the government’s goal of Atmanirbhar Bharat i.e self-reliant India aims to look outwards and not inwards. He said Modi government’s vision of this mission is ‘not to turn inwards or protectionist’ but it’s about ‘opening India’s doors wider so that India engages with the world from a position of strength, on equal, fair and reciprocal terms.’ He further stated that the government was focussing its energies on creating ‘what we can within the country, learn from experiences across the world, bring best of technologies to India, attract capital, skills and high-quality education and healthcare.’

India’s response and efforts in tackling the Covid-19 pandemic in the second most populous country in the world has been splendid to say the least. When the most advanced of nations and their state-of-the-art infrastructure failed to contain the spread of the deadly virus, India shone in its understated pursuit of managing the worst pandemic to hit the planet in the 21st century. It was then that the nation also realised how important was it to be a self-reliant economy.

According to the Union Minister, the ‘Janata Curfew followed by the total and complete lockdown in the country were the initial steps in building the nation’s capabilities as it bought the government time to ramp up testing, labs, production of face masks, PPE kits, ventilators, setting up Covid-19 wards, more ICUs, etc.’ He further added that it was the stellar success achieved in scaling up indigenous capabilities on all these fronts that gave India the confidence that ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat’ can indeed be achieved.

Meeting domestic and global demands

The Covid-19 pandemic wreaked global economy and that of India badly. It hit the world hard and extremely fast before nations could gear up to protect their citizens or even cushion the economic impacts. However, on a positive side, it also opened doors of promising export opportunities for Indian businesses. The pandemic created new markets and growth opportunities for multiple product categories especially medical equipment and gear including PPEs, face masks, sanitisers, disinfectants, test kits, etc. and experts believe export of these products will continue to rise in the coming years.

In the period spanning from January till July 2020, India reported total export revenue of an estimated USD 532 million from 14 medical-related products. According to a report by Drip Capital, ‘the largest component of the USD 150 million in growth comes from the textile sector, specifically a class of impregnated and coated fabrics used in the PPE equipment for medical professionals, as well as masks.’

As countries were building up their health infrastructure to fight the Covid-19 pandemic, India also saw significant growth in classes of rubber used for gloves, surgical equipment and medical equipment. India has been exporting these products to USA, Canada, Germany, France, Netherlands, Belgium, Italy, UK, China, UAE, Vietnam, South Africa, Singapore, Thailand, Turkey, etc.

‘Over the last four years, on average, India exported around USD 539 million annually in these selected categories. From January-July of 2020, India exported USD 532 million, and could come close to doubling the average if the pandemic worsens’ as per the report.

Gearing up for the future

The Covid-19 pandemic challenged human capabilities and preparedness. Countries such as the US and those in Europe are reporting the second wave of the novel coronavirus and are beefing up their healthcare system to address the issue. The handling of the situation will depend on the preparedness and effectiveness of the governments in procuring medical kits and gear such as PPEs.

And the demand is not restricted to PPEs and masks. With countries racing to produce Covid-19 vaccine, there is a need to ensure sufficient production of materials such as syringes. The All India Syringe and Needle Manufacturers Association (AISNMA) wrote to the Central Government offering an additional capacity of over 350 million syringes per month to meet the entire demand for mass Covid-19 vaccination through domestic production. The Association informed this additional capacity has already been built up by its members, in advance, keeping in mind the initial shortage of masks and PPE faced by India and the world.

India straightened up and led the way

The Covid-19 infection was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organisation in March 2020. It was estimated that the world would need 89 million masks, 76 million gloves and 1.6 million goggles every month to combat the infection. This meant the need to spruce up global PPE manufacturing by at least 40 per cent. The critical shortage was felt by several nations, including India, and soon India rose up to the challenge by increasing manufacturing despite the constraints of the lockdown.

India leveraged its existing manufacturing set up that is low cost and robust and world-class research facilities to increase the PPE production. Major manufacturing and textile centres such as Maharashtra, Gujarat, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka are accounting for 70 per cent of the total export value of these products.

In March 2020, India had no PPE production facilities. But the nation beefed up its efforts and in a span of two months there were over 600 companies that had been certified to produce PPE. Not only this, the domestic market alone was worth INR 10,000 crores. India boosted up production in a systematic and planned manner and in no time became the second largest PPE producer in the world, after China.

The Ministry of Textiles in a statement said steps were being taken to ensure only certified players across the entire supply chain are allowed to supply body coveralls to governments. It further added that measures were undertaken to ensure both quality and quantity of PPE overalls reach the desired levels.

Secretary, Textiles Committee and Additional Textile Commissioner, Ministry of Textiles, Ajit Chavan explained how the committee tackled the non-availability of reputed domestic manufacturers of PPE testing equipment in the country. “We faced the humongous challenges of non-availability of domestic manufacturers of repute and incessant delay/long gestation period to import machine from China as also challenges of ever-increasing prices by the opportunist companies in China due to demand for such equipment the world over. We therefore decided to do it indigenously,” he said.

The PPE ecosystem could not have been created without timely government assistance and intervention by identifying the right manufacturers, testing facilities and setting up an effective supply chain mechanism for timely deliveries. These combined efforts catapulted India into the world’s second- largest manufacturer of PPE overalls in a very short period of time.

Jyothi Menon

Jyothi Menon is a health law activist working with – A DraftCraft International Initiative to spread awareness among patients of legal rights and position in law, boost medico-legal awareness, initiate legislative change and enforce accountability among healthcare players.